Retail Foodservice

Organic Labeling Gets More Complicated

There is very little regulation in the restaurant industry


We’ve told you about the fight between farmers who want to demand that crops that are grown hydroponically should not be allowed to use the term organic. 

And to further complicate consumer confusion, and perhaps belie trust, restaurants are touting “organic”—but a New York Times report shows that one restaurant, Bareburger, has come under scrutiny because not all its foods are organic. Bareburger’s packaging advertises the food as organic—but for its beef burger, the restaurants use both 100% organic beef and a blend from Pat LaFrieda that’s only 75% to 80% organic.

It is important to note that the term “organic” doesn’t mean much in restaurants; they are not required to adhere to the same rigorous certifying processes as farms and food companies.

Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current rules, restaurants (characterized as “retail food establishments”) may call their food organic if they have made what Jennifer Tucker, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, called a “reasonable” effort to use organic ingredients. Agriculture Department guidelines for farms and other businesses say a product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients—excluding salt and water—to be labeled organic.

There is no precise definition, however, of what constitutes a reasonable effort, and no monitoring body for enforcement. If the department receives a complaint that a restaurant is falsely billing its food as organic, Tucker told The New York Times, it will investigate the claim and, if necessary, send a letter asking the owner to stop using the term.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food generates more than $45 billion a year in sales. So restaurants have joined in, labeling their food organic without seeking certification.


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